RSS FeedFacebookSearch
Gary Younge
Haiti's militias claim to uphold the law - but now they have become the law

Behind him is a town emptied by fear - a place where people whisper in the darkness of their own homes with the curtains drawn against the crackle of gunfire. The usually bustling market is still; those who brave the streets are fidgety.

An anti-government gang, Ramicos, overran the police station and took over St Marc, 55 miles north of Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince, last Saturday. On Monday the government took it back.

But the gatekeeper, who holds the keys to the town in the barrel of his gun, is not a policeman. He is a member of Bale Wouze, a gang which supports President Jean Bertrand Aristide and is leading the charge to regain control of the town. Its Creole name means "sweep them out and mop them up". And that is what they have been doing these past few days; searching for leaders of Ramicos, burning them out of their homes and executing them.

"There is a formal connection between us and the government," says Bale Wouze's founder, Amanous Mayette. "We are collaborating with the authorities so that they can control the situation."

But the truth is that Bale Wouze are the authorities, and Mr Mayette is their don. This is mob rule. Young men walk in and out of his compound carrying guns and cartons of spaghetti. The police happily defer to them, waving vehicles through the official checkpoint so that the gatekeeper can do his job.

Civil decay

"People are afraid that the Bale Wouze are about to burn down their houses," whispers a young car mechanic, before ushering me out of his back door for fear of reprisals. "They do whatever they want."

Such is the nature of the political violence and civil decay that has brought Haiti to the brink of civil war. The absence of political leadership on both sides has left ample space for gangsters to roam freely.

With no military and only a few thousand police officers, Mr Aristide relies on the muscle of groups like the Bale Wouze to stay in power. He is too weak to rule effectively by force alone, and, after a litany of claims of human rights abusesand election-rigging, he cannot rule by consent.

"We have 4,000 policemen who are ill-equipped and ill-trained," says the minister for Haitians living abroad, Leslie Voltaire. "But what is happening now could not happen in a dictatorship."

Yet with no viable strategy for getting rid of Mr Aristide and no clear agenda beyond his departure, the opposition has cleared the path for an armed insurrection which they are both unwilling and unable to lead.

"We have not proposed an alternative," says the student leader Guy Leveille, an Aristide opponent. "We believe in democracy and the people."

The opposition's refusal to negotiate, even with the mediation of the international community, ensures deadlock. Anti-government gangs such as Ramicos and the Cannibal Army, which still control the country's fourth largest city, Gonaive, present themselves as the only means of breaking that deadlock.

The political culture is becoming increasingly militarised. With no moderate or moderating voices the media, trade unions and professional associations have all divided into pro- or anti-Aristide camps. And since the gun alone is law, there is little prospect of order. Many, including much of the international community, are far more afraid of the chaos that might ensue if Mr Aristide resigned than of the chaos over which he is presiding.

"We are extremely worried by the potential for a downward spiral into increasingly widespread and acute political violence that would place fundamental rights even further in jeopardy," said Amnesty International last month, as it criticised both the government and the opposition. "The threats to human rights in Haiti are the most serious we have seen since the 1994 return to democratic order."

In a country where phones are unreliable, television signals outside the capital are often unavailable, most people cannot read newspapers and radio stations are partisan, rumour is the common currency.

In such situations geography takes on a particular significance. In Montrouis, 15 minutes' drive from St Marc, the streets are full as people go about their daily business as normal. The carnage in Gonaives - where the mutilated bodies of dead policemen were paraded around the town - is easier to imagine for those in the west, who can see it on television, than it is in the slums of Port-au-Prince, where most cannot.

The answer to the question of whether Haiti is about to explode depends on whom you speak to, where they are, what they have seen, and to whom they have spoken. Fear travels faster than facts; news moves slowly, and when it arrives it is heavily embellished and highly subjective. Ask about the numbers on a demonstration and the estimates range from 10,000 to a million.

The picture Mr Aristide would like us to see was portrayed on a huge poster celebrating Haiti's 200th anniversary in Port-au-Prince's Canape Vert. On one side was Toussaint L'Ouverture, the former slave who led the rebellion to make Haiti the world's first black republic. On the other was Mr Aristide. The slogan said: "Two men, two centuries, one vision."

In 1990, when Mr Aristide, then a young ascetic priest and liberation theologian, became the country's first legitimately elected president, it was the kind of comparison many Haitians fervently hoped would be proved true.

Seven months later the dream died when he was ousted in a coup, only to be born again four years later, when he returned to huge popular acclaim with the assistance of the US military and conditions imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Priest or predator?

Many of those who oppose Mr Aristide now were with him then. The picture they now see lurked below the poster on Thursday, when pro-Aristide mobs gathered at Canape Vert, burning tyres and throwing rocks to stop an opposition demonstration.

Some critics believe that power has transformed Mr Aristide, from priest to predator. Others feel they simply invested hope in the wrong man. "He hasn't changed," says Jean-Claude Bajeux, the director of the ecumenical centre for human rights. "We made the mistake of thinking that he was a political leader. But he does not know or understand what a political party is for."

Having fixed the vote in favour of his Lavalas party in 2000, the opposition claims, Mr Aristide is devoid of democratic legitimacy. But he still retains some popular support, with a strong base among the poor.

There are many of them. According to Christian Aid the average Haitian earns £340 a year, with the poorest 10% bringing home less than £20. It has the highest rates of HIV infection and adult illiteracy and the lowest life expectancy - 53 - in the Americas.

It is here that Mr Aristide and his government are vulnerable. Undermining the wealthy will not help the poor. Economic violence, caused in no small part by unfair trade rules and an international embargo, plays a considerable role in making political violence possible.

"Our weakness is economic," says Mr Voltaire. "A lot of people are not happy with us because we have not delivered for them."

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
Stranger in a Strange Land – Encounters in the Disunited States
book review
'It often takes an outsider to look inside. This is especially true of the United States.'
 follow on twitter
RT @mart_welton: Congratulations to all those getting their A-level results today. If you have BBB at A-level or above you can still apply…
RT @BernardineEvari: Please follow the groundbreaking online #MuseumofColour UK, founded by the unstoppable Samenua Sesher. The 1st gallery…
RT @EthnicityUK: Gary Younge is interviewed by @sonikkalogan about his work on racism and gun violence in @the_hindu #DataPoint podcast. h…
RT @thefreedomi: 🚨 NEW: Saudi women’s rights activist & academic Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison + 34 year travel ban f…
RT @LRB: #DawnFosterForever! On Thursday 15 September at the @LRBbookshop, @BizK1, @piercepenniless, Lynsey Hanley and @garyyounge will d…
RT @ShowunmiV: This is how we support Black women and girls
RT @sonikkalogan: It's #DataPoint Pod Thursday! In this week's episode, I talk to @noraneus, @garyyounge and @Casey_J_Wooten about the U.S.…
RT @bgnoiseuk: Next month, @LRBbookshop will host an event to celebrate the life and work of Dawn Foster with @BizK1, @piercepenniless, Lyn…
Help me Twitter. The quote: ""You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming." is most commonly…
RT @the_hindu: #DataPoint | This Thursday, @sonikkalogan takes a look at the #US gun violence epidemic, as mass shootings continue to grow…
© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc